Wednesday 26 Apr 2017

The Historical Forms of Anti-Semitism

On April 6, 1944, two trucks carrying a dozen Nazi soldiers and army captain Klaus Barbie of the Gestapo, the Third Reich’s secret police, arrived at the Maison d’Izieu, an orphanage housing over one hundred Jewish children, and which has now been made into a memorial. Of the forty-four children present that day at the Maison d’Izieu, none survived. Shipped to Montluc prison in Lyon and then onto Drancy internment camp, a hub of France’s anti-Semitic deportation policy, they were then deported to the death camps of Auschwitz in Poland and the Ninth Fort in Lithuania. Recounted by the current Director of the Maison d’Izieu, Dominique Vidaud, this terrifying historical testimony moved the 200 students of La Grande Boissière attending the conferences given by Mr. Vidaud at the Centre des arts

Nonetheless, despite this tragic ending, Vidaud insists that “the Maison d’Izieu is not a place of death but a place of life, because we try to revive the memory of the children and to extend the memorial to all victims of genocide, no matter who they are.” Hence his presence at Ecolint to present to students the historical forms of anti-Semitism and warn them against these trends that unfortunately still exist today. 

Anti-Semitism: a religious issue?

In Antiquity, anti-Semitism was already rampant, as Jews were accused of being separatists who adopted rituals and rules that only applied to them. Since the Romans were not particularly demanding as regards the practice of religion or sacrifice to the gods, the practice of Judaism was not what posed a problem. However, at a time when the divinity of the emperor went undisputed, Judeo-phobia was rather more centred around a political problem, as Jews represented a potential threat to the emperor’s absolute power. 

Later on, with the rise of Christianity, Jews were accused of having put Christ to death, and their descendants inherited the label of murderers. In fact, the precarious situation of Christians meant that they had to entrench their legitimacy and supremacy in order to guarantee their survival. As a result, for the Church Fathers, there could not be two people of the book, and it was therefore necessary to seek to convert them at all costs. 

In the Middle Ages and during the modern era, anti-Semitism took on extremely violent forms, notably during the Crusades that led to numerous pogroms throughout Europe and the isolation of Jews in specific neighbourhoods of European cities. Yet the different forms of anti-Semitism were not only created by political and religious leaders. At times, great authors and artists helped convey anti-Semitic stereotypes in their works, reinforcing the negative image of Jews. “This was the case of Shakespeare who created characters, like Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, who unfortunately helped develop a moral stereotype: that of Jews’ relationship to money,” explains Vidaud.

From religion to “race”

The end of the 19th century saw the appearance of a new form of hatred of Jews. Indeed, with the publication of the polemic essay Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum, German journalist Wilhelm Marr created a racial anti-Semitism which was no longer based on religion, and put about the idea that the “Jewish race” was preventing the domination of the “Germanic (or Aryan) race”. For Vidaud, the 19th century marked a pivotal period for anti-Semitism, as the concept of “race” was then in full swing, namely because of the publication of the Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines by Arthur de Gobineau, who assigned to the “Aryan race” the monopoly over beauty, intelligence and strength. 

Consequently, the Jewish became scapegoats for all the evils of society. “For some, they became too rich, while for others they were too poor,” explains Vidaud. The Dreyfus affair was a perfect example of this. Wrongly accused and convicted of having shared military secrets with the German Empire, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was deported to a prison in Guyana. Back in France, evidence of his innocence was brought to the authorities and ignored, as “they believed that the honour of the army was more important than to acquit a Jew,” says Vidaud. This led to a profound division of society between the Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards, revealing a social context particularly prone to anti-Semitism.

This social context was not unique to France. It was present all across Europe where nationalist crises were brewing. It was particularly strong in Germany after the First World War, where Jews were seen as the cause of the German defeat. When Hitler rose to power in 1935, the situation was ideal to shift policies towards growing persecution of those of the Jewish faith, and then to their systematic extermination. 

For Ecolint students, this overview of the historical forms of anti-Semitism taught them that discrimination, no matter what form it takes, requires only simple language to express itself – the language of stereotypes. “Irrespective of whether they represent reality, irrespective of whether they are true or authentic, stereotypes exist to label people in order to better stigmatise them,” concludes Vidaud. In the case of Jews, as with so many other unjustly discriminated groups, stereotypes had deadly consequences. An important lesson for the students who will henceforth always be wary of anything that brands individuals according to specific categories.  

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